Immigration to Israel from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s wasn't a one-way rescue operation, at least according to a leading scholar. Rather, the immigrants saved the state and the state saved the immigrants, says Dr. Zeev Hanin of Bar-Ilan University.

This rescue was not only a metaphorical deliverance in the spirit of the Zionist ethos, but a measurable physical one: Immigration to Israel extended life expectancy for both men and women from the former USSR.

The life span of Soviet Jews was always higher than the Soviet average, but much lower in relation to that of Western nations: in 1989 it was 56.8 years for Jewish men and 60.1 for Jewish women. In the difficult times that followed the break-up of the Soviet Union, anti-Semitism rose as life expectancy declined; Jews were accused of dismantling the empire and taking their doctors with them when they fled.

In Israel, the immigrants' average life span has risen by seven or eight years for both men and women.

"The money that Russian-Israelis formerly earmarked for funerals, we now use for trips abroad," Hanin jokes. "The average age of death for newer immigrants is still lower than that of more veteran ones and of native-born Israelis, but it is approaching the average faster than salaries are."

For Hanin, 50, the subject is not merely a matter of statistics. He himself immigrated from the former Soviet Union 18 years ago, worked at Bar-Ilan University, and currently serves as the Immigration Ministry's chief researcher. His "mutual rescue" claim is based on findings of a broad study conducted by the ministry for the 20th anniversary of this large wave of Russian immigration.

Hanin's findings were presented yesterday at the 10th annual Herzliya Conference in a special session devoted to the immigration and absorption of one million Russian-speaking people who have changed the face of Israel.

Demographically, the immigrants have changed the country by altering the make-up of the periphery and the social structure of the army, as well as maintaining the Jewish-Arab balance of the population, which stood to change dramatically before their arrival.

On the other hand, the Israelization of the immigrants is expressed in the birth rate. While in the former Soviet Union the average Jewish family had one child, after 20 years in Israel, their birth rate is approaching that of the secular average: 2.1 children per family.

About 110,000 immigrants have died while 160,000 children have been born. In a country where the discourse on demographics is political, these statistics mean something.

An analysis of the figures refutes the myth of massive emigration from Israel by these immigrants in a return to their homelands.

"It's a complete lie," says Hanin angrily. "Since the wave of immigration began, 87,000 have left Israel: half returned to Russia and half went to other countries. This amounts to less than 10 percent of all Soviet immigrants, even lower than the percentage of immigrants to the United States who [eventually] leave there."

The statistics indeed paint a different story than popular notions. The rate of Soviet Jewish immigrants who leave Israel is much smaller than that of immigrants from the United States and France who choose to return to their countries.

But while the latter phenomenon is received with understanding, the same behavior by Russian immigrants is decried.

In opposition to the natural tendency to build a new life in large cities, most of the immigrants of the 1990s settled in the periphery. Much criticism was leveled at Ariel Sharon, then minister of Housing and Construction, for creating housing in outlying areas, thought unsuitable for the Russian Jewish lifestyle.

The assumption at the time was that the immigrants would complete the absorption process, establish themselves financially and move to the cities.

This did not happen. About 60 percent of the immigrants have never moved house since their arrival; 90 percent express satisfaction with their places of residence.

The dispersal of immigrants in mid-sized cities and small towns has changed the periphery, increasing investment and creating new employment opportunities.

Hanin says that in contrast with the first years, which were characterized by fierce competition over jobs and growing unemployment among earlier immigrants due to the hiring of new ones, later figures point to an opposite trend: In 1998 the participation of immigrants in the work force actually grew. But the salary gap remained the same.

"Since 1998 there has been a massive increase in salaries for the earlier immigrants because of growth in new areas and private investment," Hanin says. "Paradoxically, the newer immigrants lag behind with salaries up to 30 percent lower than the earlier ones."

Self-absorbed population

Settlement in outlying areas, close to social and family networks, exerts a broad and complex influence: This trend reinforces a closed sub-culture sometimes erroneously dubbed "the Russian ghetto."

The contribution of immigrants to the concept known as Israel's "national strength" is also measured by their participation in the army. New immigrants amount to one quarter of all IDF soldiers, and their representation in combat and technical units is larger than their share of the population.

Just recently, at the Ashdod Immigration and Absorption Conference, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, himself an immigrant from the former USSR, boasted that the IDF's marksmen's unit is composed mainly of Russian-speaking soldiers. "Perhaps it is a matter of character or personality," Leiberman joked on stage at the conference.

But this character is accompanied by other qualities. Not surprisingly, in a conversation with Haaretz, Immigrant Absorption Minister Sofa Landver voiced her appreciation of the contribution of immigrants to Israel's strength and security.

However, she says that this wave absorbed itself. "The amazing success of these immigrants stems mainly from their high quality," Landver says. "The immigrants assimilated almost by themselves, while the country and the society did nothing for them. Even today, 20 years later, there are expressions of racism that slander an entire public. Israeli society must understand that this wave of immigration saved Israel in many areas, and so we owe it much thanks."